How Athlete Council bloc arrived at vote for Carlos Cordeiro

American Outlaws - U.S. Soccer - Athlete Council

Photo credit: Erik Drost

ORLANDO, Fla. — Coming out of this weekend’s USSF Annual General Meeting and presidential election in Orlando, the role of the Athlete Council has been especially scrutinized. The council, whose bloc of votes — comprising 25.8 percent of the electorate and 51.6 percent of the votes needed to win election if the full allotment of votes attends — gave Carlos Cordeiro the win on a third ballot after strong first and second-ballot leads, has come under fire from supporters of the losing candidates. At issue for many is the Athlete Council’s support of Cordeiro, who never played the game.

Chaired by Chris Ahrens, a former Paralympic star, the Athlete Council has 20 members. Of the 20, only 12 bothered to cast ballots in Orlando, which included Heather O’Reilly, who flew from London in the middle of Arsenal’s WSL season. The low number of athletes who cast ballots can be attributed to the desires of MLS, fearful a bloc would come together for the likes of Kyle Martino, perceived as a candidate not in line with Don Garber’s agenda, being given a difficult time leaving their clubs.

To understand why the Athlete Council ended up supporting Cordeiro instead of a former player, one must backtrack to the week leading up the election and the dysfunctional “Gang of Six” reform candidate discussions that have been extensively reported on by the Washington Post’s Steve Goff, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, SoccerWire’s Charles Boehm and myself.

On Monday, I tweeted vaguely that a coalition might be coming together among insurgent candidates. This was the start of the “Gang of Six,” aptly named by Goff to describe the six candidates associated with various degrees of anti-establishment views.

As the “Gang of Six” began a courtship, the Athlete Council stood by watching developments with great interest. While SI’s Grant Wahl had previously reported that the Athlete Council might vote as a bloc and would interview only four candidates: establishment favorites Kathy Carter and Carlos Cordeiro, as well as former players Kyle Martino and Mike Winograd. My understanding is that a fifth candidate, Boston attorney Steven Gans, himself a former player, remained a viable option for many of the members of the council until Friday night.

Moreover, despite his campaign’s claims to the contrary, Eric Wynalda, the favorite of those wanting to shake up the USSF and one of the great stars in U.S. men’s national team history, had little or no support throughout the process from members of the council.

The candidacy of Martino was a curiosity for many “reformers.” Wynalda had the support of almost the entire opposition infrastructure including the NASL, NPSL, NISA founder Peter Wilt and most of the Twitterverse which supports promotion and relegation. But Martino was making headway among more independent-minded reformers who weren’t tied directly to Wynalda supporters. As Martino gained traction, particularly with his “progress plan” which includes promotion and relegation as well as his strong statements to the Athlete Council about the influence of Soccer United Marketing (SUM), many even within the NASL and NPSL began to hedge their bets. Meanwhile, many of the most prominent U.S. women’s national team players of recent years were privately gravitating toward Martino, per multiple sources, despite the presence of their former teammate Hope Solo in the race.

While Martino remained an option for the Athlete Council, intense lobbying was taking place on behalf of both Carter, the MLS choice, and Cordeiro, the institutional U.S. Soccer favorite. While the Twitterverse went crazy about allegations regarding this lobbying, to this point I still cannot confirm that Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm were advocating for a specific candidate. It has been confirmed to me by a source, however, that Casey Wasserman was indeed controversially lobbying on behalf of Kathy Carter.

Martino’s hopes of carrying the bloc or any of the council hinged largely on convincing the athletes that he could indeed create a coalition with Wynalda and other reformers, showing an ability to lead and an administrative skill necessary to serve as USSF president. For Martino, making a shotgun marriage with Wynalda was a test — a test that ultimately failed because of Wynalda and his supporters’ stubbornness and misreading of the electorate more than anything, which led to the collapse of the “Gang of Six” talks on Friday, per multiple sources.

Whomever was responsible for the breakdown in the coalition, Martino was at this point no longer a consideration for the athletes’ bloc vote, though if they chose to not vote as a bloc he still had the opportunity to maintain some support among a few individuals. At this point, Gans, with his administrative experience, emerged as a potential compromise candidate since many of the council members wanted to send the USSF a clear message about the state of the game. But Gans’ inability to gain large chunks of support outside the council ended this idea. One of the great untold stories of this election is how tantalizingly close Gans was to being a serious factor on multiple occasions. Whether it was just bad luck or not, the Boston-based attorney never really got the traction that perhaps his well-run campaign deserved.

Eventually, with Gans out of play and a strong desire to not anoint Carter, the choice of MLS and Soccer United Marketing was Cordeiro, who was always the most likely to win the bloc in hindsight.

Saturday morning, on the first two ballots, the Athlete Council voted for Cordeiro. He led, but did not gain a majority of votes. Then suddenly, according to multiple sources, Martino emerged as a possibility for some Athlete Council members on the third ballot. Getting wind of this, as confirmed by multiple sources, prompted Don Garber to flip MLS’ support from Carter to Cordeiro as a way of keeping the bloc together and preventing an opening for Martino, one of three candidates — as first reported by Boehm — backed by elements within the NASL, who of course has sued the USSF and named Garber and Cordeiro as defendants in a separate lawsuit.

Whether of not the threat of a shift to Martino was a clever ruse to get Garber to shut down Carter or was a serious potential move by the athletes may never really be known. For this story, no Athlete Council member was spoken to, though on background several delegates at the convention and others in the camps of several of the impacted candidates have been consulted.

While it might seem incredible and far-fetched that Martino, who was in single digits on the first ballot, may have emerged as a potential winner, in the history of contested nonprofit elections and party nominating conventions, once balloting goes beyond three ballots often times the results become unpredictable and compromise candidates emerge. Since the end of the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia, it had been fairly clear that either Cordeiro or Carter would win this race. It seemed to most outside observers if the reformers had any chance of winning a majority of delegates, Martino was the most likely person to achieve this goal.

It also might have been shortsighted for those in the insurgent camps to not have tried to strategically make a deal with Carter or Cordeiro after the first ballot when their votes would have been useful to building a majority. Even if forced, Garber’s shift of MLS’ vote bloc provided a majority for Cordeiro and quite possibly increases the leverage MLS will have on the new U.S. Soccer president going forward.

In the end, the reformers had opportunities to break through with the Athlete Council but failed to capitalize, as was the case with this campaign in general. But the final vote tally told so little of the story as to how the decisions were made and how much deliberation there was.

Follow Kartik on Twitter: @kkfla737.

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